Everything has turned upside down in Wendy Shields' world: Her husband of 21 years has abandoned her for a younger woman, and this time, he's not coming back.
In the divorce papers, he has asked for half the worth of their Upper West Side townhouse, where they've raised a daughter. Wendy - played by Patricia Clarkson with a dead-on mix of panic, despair, and acid wit - can't afford to live there by herself. But she can't imagine moving, either.
A New York story that ripples out from its cosmopolitan, multicultural borders, Learning to Drive is a story of crisis, of recalibration, of rediscovering your strengths, your independence. Wendy is a literary critic with friends in arts and academe, with books piled high through her house, inspiring her, but protecting her, too. They're like fortress walls - novels and biographies that have kept the outside world from breaking in.
The other principal in Isabel Coixet's sweet and moving tale, Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley), finds himself reassessing his life, too. A gentlemanly Sikh who teaches driving by day and drives a cab by night, Darwan wears a turban, a beard, and a look of stoic patience. He lives in Queens, in a basement flat with other Indian men; he was a professor back home, but after gaining political asylum in the U.S., he can never return. That's not stopping his family in India from keeping the pressure on for him to marry; he is too old to be alone, it is not proper, dignified. Their entreaties, via Skype, are endless.
It is Darwan who pulls up in the Driving School car to teach Wendy to transition into traffic, to signal, to parallel park. The driving metaphors don't need any added emphasis: Put the car (and your life) in forward; be aware and anticipate; control your rage; know where you're going.
Clarkson and Kingsley, who worked together in 2008's Philip Roth adaptation, Elegy (also directed by Coixet), move with grace and ease through the stages of their characters' relationship. Darwan is calm and sage and ready to apply the brakes if his pupil fails to see whatever might suddenly jump out in front of her. Wendy is still reeling, still in shock, not sure why she has even signed up for lessons. But it was her husband who always drove; if she is to move on, she should get behind the wheel, be in control.
Anyway, her daughter (Grace Gummer) is living in the depths of New England, where neither train nor plane offers easy access. If Wendy wants to see her, she'll need to drive.
As Wendy and Darwan get to know each other, a kind of chaste courtship ensues. Now and then, over wine or an amble down a Brooklyn boardwalk, the glimmers of romance, of longing, emerge. But the intimacy that develops between these two people is that of platonic friends, and it's heartening to watch it develop. Even as Darwan struggles to come to terms with his new life, and the wife, courtesy of the Sikh traditions of arranged marriages, who has deplaned from India. Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) is lost in the New World, and Darwan is uncertain how to behave with this stranger who now shares his bed.
Learning to Drive is a story of companionship, loneliness, resilience. It's a small, artfully crafted thing, but it resonates in big ways.
Learning to Drive ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Isabel Coixet. With Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Grace Gummer, Jake Weber. Distributed by Broad Green Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, sex, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz 5.